Chasing Baseball's Milestones: How Tough Is Winning 300 Games?
Last week I was lucky enough to be one of the 2,500 or so people to witness Randy Johnson win his 300th game against the Washington Nationals. In the days surrounding the victory, there were a host of articles wondering whether Johnson would be the last 300 game winner, as well as a host of other articles refuting the notion. So how hard is it to win 300 nowadays anyway?
The game certainly changed a lot since Cy Young was hurling, and that certainly has changed pitchers abilities to win 300 games. While a statistician would know better than to say anything will never happen, consensus seems to indicate it is indeed harder to win 300 games than it used to be. What I set out to do here is create an index which indicates how many wins a great pitcher can expect to earn over the course of a great career. Do the statistics back up the notion that a great pitcher will rack up fewer wins in his career today than in the 1960's or the deadball era?
Creating the Index
Usually when comparing statistics across eras, using league averages are useful in normalizing player statistics, however, this isn't much use when it comes to wins - after all, the total number of league wins is constant. A better way of examining this is to look at the MLB leaderboard in each season to determine the amount of wins earned by a high performing player. For the years up through the expansion era, I looked at the majors’ #5 win leader and took his win total as a benchmark for a high performing player. I adjusted accordingly using percentiles as expansion added more teams, so that currently I was looking at approximately the #9 ranked win leader. Looking at the leaders is useful because it measures high-performing pitchers only, which is what we are interested in. It also automatically takes into account usage patterns, strike-shortened seasons, changes to the schedule, and other changes to the game throughout the years.
Of course, a player looking to join a milestone club such as 300 wins will have to repeat this high-level benchmark performance over many years of his career. To create our index, I had our hypothetical great hurler pitch 15 years at the benchmark level of wins stated above to calculate a career win total.
So how many wins will he achieve in his career during each era of baseball history? The graph below shows the number of expected career wins with each year on the x-axis being the peak year of the player's career.
As you can see, this formulation is indexed at exactly 300 wins at several points throughout history: 1952, 1966, and 1973. This means our hypothetical pitcher would be expected to earn 300 wins whether his peak was in any of those three years. Glancing at the graph we see that it was much easier for a great pitcher to rack up wins in the early days of baseball. Our pitcher with a peak in 1908 would expect to win 366 games. From there the expected win total drops off gradually until it plateaus in the 1930's around 300 wins. After that we see that the amount of wins expected by a great pitcher remains remarkably constant for a long stretch of baseball history, never straying outside of a 10 win radius between the years 1934 and 1977.
After 1977 however, we see a steep drop in the number of expected wins, with the total dropping from 299 in 1975 to 271 in 1986. This almost certainly reflects the switch to a 5-man rotation, which dramatically decreased the number starts, and thus the opportunities for wins for hall-of-fame caliber pitchers. After 1986, the expected number of wins has stayed relatively constant, although it has dropped slightly to its current (peak year=2001) level of 263 wins.
This analysis provides an index for us. It appears that winning 262 games in the modern era is equivalent to winning 300 games in 1966, which is in turn equivalent to winning 347 games in 1917. Based on this, it appears that indeed the modern pitcher has a major disadvantage compared to hurlers of old. In order to get to 300 wins, he has to win approximately 37 more games than if he had been pitching in the golden era of baseball history.
But does this tell the whole story? The above assumes that a pitcher pitches at an outstanding level for 15 years, but modern conditioning and the 5-man rotation may help a modern hurler pitch longer than his old-school counterpart. This should be reflected in the methodology as well.
How to measure longevity? Since we are interested in looking only at high performing pitchers, I simply looked at the number of years pitched (with over 100 IP) by the top ranked win leaders in each year. While I wasn't able to compile this for all years, I did so surrounding three main points in baseball history. In the years between 1905-1915, top 5 win leaders averaged 12.5 years of service. I then looked at the years surrounding 1960. From 1955-1965, top 5 win leaders averaged 12.3 years of service, very similar to the longevity of the deadball era hurlers. I then looked at top 8 win leaders in the years surrounding 1990. From 1987-1993, the leaders increased their longevity to 13.8 years of service. While the standard errors on these estimates were rather high at around .6, this preliminary investigation indicates that indeed top-flight pitchers are pitching longer in today's game, increasing their longevity by about 10% since the 1960's.
So, how does one adjust for this increased longevity when estimating a player's lifetime wins? An increase of 10% in longevity indicates a corresponding 10% increase in the number of wins - simple enough. But when did this shift occur? Here I'll make a major assumption. The number of starts and innings dropped dramatically in the period from 1975 to 1985, causing the aformentioned steep drop in wins during this period. I'd be willing to say that it was during this period that the increase in longevity occurred. After all, the 5-man rotation was created in large part to protect a pitcher's health and longevity, so it would make sense that longevity would increase during this period. Portioning out the increase gradually in 1% increments between these 10 years, we can create a new index of expected wins. Below is a new graph reflecting the increase in longevity.
Looking at the latter end of the new graph, we see that the effects of increased longevity largely cancel out the decreased number of wins per season. The expected number of wins remains above 300 well into the 1980's and rests today (with a peak year=2001) at 289. This generally refutes the notion that getting to 300 wins is much harder today than it used to be. What's remarkable is that throughout the last 70 years of baseball history, the milestone has remained a consistent standard of excellence. It's probably one of the truest milestone clubs in any sport, and it's largely as reachable for Tim Lincecum or Carlos Zambrano as it was for Whitey Ford or Early Wynn. The only blemish on the 300 club is the fact that several "undeserving" pitchers from the early days were able to reach 300 when it truly was an easier feat to accomplish. The era-neutral 300 win club according to this methodology consists of the following 16 pitchers (wins are indexed to 1952/1966/1973 levels):
Looking at this list, Cy Young is still at the top followed by Spahn, Maddux, Clemens, and Walter Johnson. The rest of the list skews modern, which could convince me that the effects of modern longevity are even greater than I previously estimated. My methodology was certainly not air-tight on determining longevity, and more research could verify whether my assumptions were valid. Nevertheless, it appears the 300-club is alive and well. If the modern pitcher is at a disadvantage, it is a small one on the order of 10 wins or so. While it's true there are no 300-game winners on the immediate horizon, it's a fair bet that another one will come soon enough.
The 500-HR Club
While I had this system in place, I thought I would also apply it to the 500-Home Run club. Since hitters generally play longer than pitchers, I increased the number of years at peak performance to 16 instead of 15 years. This sets the 500 HR index points at 1934, 1949, and 1977. The following graph shows the expected number of home runs by players performing at peak level for 16 years.
As you can see, the 500-HR club is not nearly as true of a milestone club as the 300-win club. As can be expected, in the early days of baseball the HR bar was set very low. It then rises to a peak of 500 in 1934 before going into a trough through the 1940's. It reaches another peak point of 594 homers in 1958 before dipping back down to around 500 in the late 70's. From the late eighties to today, the expected number of home runs has risen dramatically to its peak level today (peak year=2001) of 634 HR's. This means that a player with a peak year in 2001 has a 134 HR advantage over players who played just 20 years earlier.
I didn't adjust for longevity here, since the usage of hitters has not changed throughout baseball history (although one could argue that the DH has enabled players to hit more lifetime HR's). A list of the "era-neutral" 500-HR club is below and consists of 11 members from a well-balanced smattering of eras (HR’s are indexed to their 1934/1949/1977 levels).
As if you needed more proof of Ruth's dominance, here it is. He's at the top by a wide margin. Aaron and Bonds follow, and there's a large dropoff after that. The list is devoid of the plethora of modern sluggers who have recently joined the ranks, although Griffey is about 13 HR's away from joining. It also leaves off a number of 50's and 60's players. The era correction makes the feats of Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt look even more impressive as well as adds Lou Gehrig to the club. Of course, if you wanted to index to a different year, you could make the club either more or less exclusive.
While 300-wins remains a good marker for a ticket to Cooperstown, the 500 HR club is far more volatile and if Hall voters haven't figured it out already, they will be writing a lot of unwarranted tickets if they use that as their standard with modern players. The 300-club however, remains a gold standard which is both reachable, but difficult to achieve.